Photos of Egyptian protesters have dominated global headlines for the last week. I’ve read the articles in the major papers, I’ve listen to the talking heads on the radio, I’ve follow the up to the minute coverage on the internet. With all the reporting I’ve imbibed regarding the situation in Cairo I’ve found myself wondering if the simple presence of mass protests means Mubarak should go. Does might make right? If you get enough people to shout (or throw Molotov cocktails) on your behalf, should you be able to depose a leader?
I’m playing devil’s advocate. From all accounts Mubarak is, in fact a corrupt and violent leader who has abused his power for thirty years. I recognize that all the reports I am personally getting are through American or British channels, but I still believe them.
My friend Adam was recently in Cairo and left only days before the protests erupted. He continued on to Sana’a, Yemen, which has also been roiling, albeit to a much lesser extent. Adam’s been traveling in Africa and the Middle East for a couple of months and has extensive international travel and cross-cultural experience. In a recent blog post he lamented American stereotypes of Arab and African people. I chewed on Adam’s thoughts for a few days.
Then, while listening to an interview with an Egyptian man on NPR and a couple of tumblers fell into place in my mind and something unlocked. This man was purportedly a supporter of Mubarak, someone interested in maintaining the status quo. He downplayed the number of protesters, stating that a few ten thousands of people in a country of 82 million is hardly a huge percentage. I would have to say that any time tens or, as is now being reported, hundreds of thousands of people are out in the street, a SIGNIFICANT portion of the population is upset. These people are representative of a larger portion of the population that cannot or are afraid to demonstrate. But that’s not what struck me about the man’s comments.
What struck me was his appeal to the political process. Again, I have to believe that much of what is being said about Mubarak and the brutality of his repressive emergency laws and police forces is true. But is fighting a street battle with police the best way to end the thing? Maybe if your voice isn’t heard when you try to speak reasonably, if the channels of political discourse aren’t open, taking to the streets seems like a good option.
What does that have to do with American stereotypes of Arabs? Just this; when I look at my computer screen and see people rioting in Egypt, I think of a third world country and am not surprised to hear talk of the U.S. intervening, playing both sides against the middle, trying to shore up the cornerstone of their/our Middle East policy. But what if Egyptians are truly sovereign? What if they should be left to their own devices? What if they are capable of sorting things out for themselves? It’s a difficult thing, trying to figure out when to throw in your lot with the people of another country whose political situation is not your own. What would we think if the Chinese government told George Bush that he needed to step down when he had incredibly low approval ratings? If we took to the streets, would that make it ok? Do Arab peoples need our help in sorting out their problems? What does it mean to speak on behalf of justice, wherever encouragement and support is needed?